As we all experienced here in Minnesota, these past few weeks haven’t exactly been typical for our Februarys. We’re used to snowstorms and bone-chilling cold, but a few weekends ago, we were graced with the presence of warm sunshine, 60+ degree temperatures, and lots of chances for outdoor activities. Though this heat wave was a bit of a welcomed surprise, and we understand that not every weather event is directly tied to the changing climate, it may point to a more difficult and dangerous future due to climate change.
Part of that uncertain future, is the future of coffee and climate change’s impact on coffee production. The risk for coffee comes from a variety of factors, including the changing climate’s potential increasing effect on detrimental pests and disease, in addition to the precarious nature of coffee’s limited genetic diversity.
Already, climate shifts have affected crop yields in various countries of origin. For example, a severe drought in Brazil destroyed a third of their crop and the rainfall in Mexico and Central America has declined by 15 percent.
Though the coffee the world drinks comes from either Arabica or Robusta tree species, the genetic diversity among these two is slim. While little diversity may not seem innately dangerous, it will be harder for the plant to adapt to new threats. And with environmental shifts, the original forests where the coffee plant originated have decreased over time. Currently, these forests are one tenth as large as they once were, meaning that at this pace all naturally occurring coffee would be extinct by 2100.
Hotter and wetter conditions due to climate change also make for a thriving environment for pests like the Coffee Berry Borer. This beetle bores through the coffee cherry, causing damage to the seed itself, and in turn, damaging entire crops. In the past, the borer could only survive at lower altitudes, but with temperatures rising, it’s able to move away from the equator and up to new, previously unaffected land.
Another risk for coffee plants is the plant disease known as Coffee Leaf Rust. Infected leaves on the coffee tree will drop prematurely, leaving a barren branch, resulting in a lower yield of coffee cherries for the next season. If the infection is severe enough, it can kill the tree altogether.
In 2012 and 2013, Mexico and Central America suffered a massive outbreak in Coffee Leaf Rust, causing an estimated $500 million in damages, and affecting more than 350,000 jobs. This wave in plant disease is thought to be a result of unusually high temperatures and high-altitude rains, allowing the disease to spread quickly through the crop.
Here at Tiny, we frequently work with smallholder farmers and cooperatives (they also make up 80 to 90 percent of the coffee farming community). Many of these farmers may have little capacity to fight these complications or simply adapt to the changes that the environment will face. The changes in climate can affect not only their crops, but also workers’ health, resources, and careers. It’s estimated that some 120 million people rely on coffee for their livelihood, a number that would dramatically decrease if crops aren’t able to produce due to climate change.
By ignoring action against this issue, the area suitable for coffee production could be cut in half by the year 2050. So what are we doing about it? On the production end of things, more cooperatives are focusing on diversifying their crops, developing better production systems, and moving their farms upslope. In conjunction with diversifying crops, many farms are emphasizing agroforestry, and integrating their agricultural crops with a natural landscape.
There is also a big push within some producing countries, most notably Colombia and Mexico, to plant more Arabica x Robusta hybrids, hoping to gain the disease and pest resistance of robusta, while expressing the cup quality of Arabica varieties. From a specialty perspective, the jury is still out on whether this trade-off is ultimately possible and is compounded by the worry that continued loss of heirloom Arabica varieties and their strains will lead to a further loss of both genetic and flavor diversity. But coffee farming is not a favor done for coffee consumers, it is a business that must make a return or provide subsistence relative to the effort in the smallest scale family farms. If farmers become convinced that the hybrids provide enough added assurance that a sapling planted today will produce an exportable crop 3-10 years in the future, they will plant more hybrids. Castillo a relatively new hybrid variety bred by the Colombian Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros and an even newer hybrid, what our friends at Cloud Forest Coffee Farms like to call Afro-Azteca, have made headway towards fulfilling this promise.
On the business end of things, more companies and communities are vowing to make an effort toward carbon neutrality. Recently, the City of Saint Paul launched a Climate Action plan as part of an ongoing attempt to become carbon neutral by 2050– starting right now, with a crowd-sourcing effort for sustainable ideas.
Soon then, the questions become what can we do on a personal level? For starters, being aware of the issue and taking it seriously is an essential first step. Taking note of the ways you can reduce your personal carbon footprint and following through on those habit shifts is a great way to change while encouraging others to do the same. Continue to pay attention to the sustainability efforts of the companies you work with or buy from, and continue to do the same.
It is with this awareness and these initiatives that we will work to secure a healthy future for our morning cup of coffee, the livelihoods of many people, and most importantly, our existence on this planet.
For an even more nuanced perspective, check out the report, “A Brewing Storm” from The Climate Institute.